Digital Age Merit in Japan

Digital Age Merit in Japan
Visitors to temples and shrines in Japan can make merit for themselves with just a swipe of their finger on their phones. This form of cashless merit is causing controversy in Japan.

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Merit is one of the long-standing traditions of the people of Japan, as well as many other countries in the region. Recently, many Shinto temples and Buddhist temples in this country are gradually integrating into the world's "cashless" trend. Visitors can now make merit for themselves with just a swipe of a finger on their phone.

This practice is controversial in Japan. Some advocate for the convenience of this new form of merit, as they don't have to bother carrying change when going to mass. Others are skeptical. They fear that this "digital age" form of merit will not be able to fully show their respect to the gods. Another segment is uncomfortable because their merit money can be easily checked by service providers.

On the first day of the new year, cold winds relentlessly blow through the Oggnon shrine in Takayama, a small city nestled among the rolling mountains of central Japan. A 54-year-old woman is standing in front of a small merit box, the local dialect is saisen. She held her smartphone over a QR code that was fastened to a nearby board. All she needs to do is enter the amount into the phone app. That amount will be converted into a cryptocurrency issued by the local credit union.

"It's convenient because now I don't have to carry around change," she said.

However, a 64-year-old man nearby was unimpressed with this new form of merit. “Purchase and merit are two different things. Making merit without using cash makes me feel a lack of respect for the sacred place.”

Centuries ago, merit was often done in the form of offering the gods small bags of rice. But after that, currencies were widely circulated throughout Japan, the use of cash instead of bags of rice has gradually become more common. At the present time, the form of merit has once again changed to better suit the exploding digital age on a global scale.

In June 2019, Shinto Shrine officially adopted this form of non-cash merit. “I look forward to being able to keep pace with social advancements. The number of people who make merit through electronic means is still small, mainly young people," according to the abbot.

On the island of Shikoku, Byodoji Temple, one of its 88 Buddhist temples, is a popular destination for pilgrimages among Japanese residents and tourists alike. The temple accepts up to three forms of merit through smartphone apps as of the end of 2018, which includes WeChat Pay, one of the most popular apps in China, which aims to: Foreign guests can also easily pay their respects. However, according to statistics, only about 100 Japanese people use these forms of non-cash merit every year.

Myohoji Temple in Fukuoka City has been applying the form of merit through Alipay since 2017 after receiving many comments from foreign tourists asking if they can make offerings without cash. are not? This new form of merit will also bring benefits to temples, as it will help reduce the cost of changing change and the risk of theft.

Although the benefits of this new form of merit are undeniable, the Kyoto Buddhist Sangha, which manages about 1,000 temples and shrines of various sizes in the area, says technology can give allows service providers to directly monitor the cash flow of individuals contributing to each temple or pagoda, thereby inconsistent with religious freedom laws.

Online money transfers can distort the sacred, non-commercial nature of temples and pagodas. For each merit transaction made, service providers receive a “commission”. That means that temples can be indirectly referred to as business establishments, so they may be taxed.

There has also been a question whether this online merit can be considered a form of payment for services? Currently, Japanese law stipulates that prepaid transactions, i.e. money that will be loaded into apps, are then eligible to be used to pay for items and services of value.

Some may argue that meriting the gods is in fact a payment for spiritual services, but the Kyoto Buddhist Church says that "the law is still not clear on this matter".

Because of this ambiguity, PayPay has excluded the online merit utility from the list of services that the company is providing. Some temples and pagodas have applied online merit services in the past, but have now stopped using these services for fear of violating religious regulations. However, Origami Pay says there isn't any legal problem here, as the amount of merit each time is very small.

Religious researchers also argue that this form of online merit, besides the benefits, still exists limitations.

Personal information related to religion needs to be kept confidential and religious institutions need to think very carefully before adopting "non-cash merit," according to Kunio Sakurai, a former professor at the Catholic University of Tokyo.

However, concerns regarding personal information have not been able to contain the explosion of non-cash payments, according to Naoki Shintani, a professor of folklore at Kokugakui University.

“In other words, this is also a good opportunity for us to re-evaluate our point of view of repentance by pushing all our mistakes and mistakes onto bills and coins and then throwing them away,” Shintani said.


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